In November 2014, a courageous 21 year-old woman self-published her first collection of poetry. The arresting poems that filled the pages revealed her experience of abuse, loss and femininity; they were sweet and joyful, dark and tortured, with the power to stop the reader in their tracks.
That young woman was Rupi Kaur, and her debut collection, Milk and Honey, has now sold over 2.5 million copies and topped the New York Times bestseller list. Since then, Kaur has released a second collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, and recently embarked on a worldwide poetry tour.
Kaur is part of a new generation of young poets, dubbed ‘Instagram poets’ by the media thanks to their stratospheric popularity on the social media platform. Kaur alone has a huge 2.9 million followers; others have amassed similarly impressive audiences, including the mysterious Atticus (713k) and the soulful Nayyirah Waheed (571k).
However, to refer to these rising stars simply as ‘Instagram Poets’ seems a rather reductive classification. For a start, for many poets associated with that movement, it’s not an accurate title.
‘I don’t mind being called an Instagram poet’, says R. M. Drake, whose 1.8m followers include the likes of Kylie Jenner and Karlie Kloss. ‘But I just feel like the masses are being a bit misinformed with that title. We use Instagram to share our work – that’s all there is to it. It doesn’t affect our identity. I’ve been writing since the 90s, and I used to share my poems on AOL, but that doesn’t make me an AOL poet.’
So, Drake doesn’t consider it a derogatory term. However, for some ultra-highbrow members of the literary sphere, referring to these writers as ‘Instapoets’ is a way to impugn the calibre of their work, excluding them from the literary canon of ‘real’ poets. This argument was recently hammered home by poet Rebecca Watts, who, in a brutal diatribe for the PN Review, lambasted this cohort of young poets for ‘open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft’ which, she argues, characterises their work.
Watts’ criticism draws on a larger assumption that poetry is an art form, and therefore Instagram, being a social media platform, is far removed from the lofty heights of the artistic sphere. Whilst it’s true that not every single piece of content produced for Instagram could be considered ‘art’, it would be foolish to assume that art and artistic creation is entirely absent from the platform.
Critics of ‘Instapoets’ often draw on an elitist view of the contemporary art world, forgetting the privilege that comes with retrospect and esteem. There’s a mistaken tendency to look back at ‘legacy’ art – poetry, painting and the like – and assume that the names that dominate the present-day artistic sphere are reflective of the calibre of every single artist that walked the earth. In reality, there are thousands of unsuccessful painters, poets, essayists and novelists whose work has not stood the test of time and has not been inaugurated into the artistic canon. Some have been forgotten because, objectively, their work was not particularly noteworthy, others because they did not have the platform to share their work, and others still whose work was excluded because of their gender, upbringing, or the colour of their skin.
Indeed, of the top 5 ‘Instagram poets’ who are most frequently mentioned in the international press (Kaur, Nayyirah Waheed, Atticus, Drake, Tyler Knott Gregson), two of them are women, three are people of colour, and one is entirely unknown – Atticus has never publicly revealed his identity and conducts readings with a mask covering half his face. ‘I enjoy Instagram as a creative ecosystem’, said the elusive poet. ‘There are many young writers and artists on there, and for the most part, people are supportive of one another, which is so essential for young creators.’
Atticus also thinks that Instagram has democratised poetry. ‘Social media generally has democratised content, which has undoubtedly given voices to those who would have been hard to hear before. It’s changed from a push to a pull, and that has evolved the creator/gatekeeper relationship.’
Instagram, then, is a radically democratic platform, because absolutely anyone is able to share their work, regardless of race, gender or sexuality. The popularity of that work, then, is no longer to be decided by lofty big-wigs of the art world, but rather by the 2.5 billion people worldwide who have a smartphone, who can read the work of various poets and discern whether it speaks to them.
Because after all, isn’t that what really draws people into poetry? The solidarity of shared experience and the crack in your chest when someone else finds the words that you yourself were searching for? Kaur certainly thinks so. For her, poetry is a ‘response’, a sharing of emotion, a way to connect with hundreds of thousands of readers muddling their way through love and loss and human fragility. If Instagram allows poets to do just that, and brings a sliver of light into the darkest of days, then, I say, write on.
By Sophie Perryer